The Second Nuclear Age and an Australian Nuclear Option

By Christine Leah

A previous post on this forum discussed Japan as a potential nuclear weapons state, but what about seemingly less unlikely candidates, like Australia?

From 1945 to around 1974, Australia tried to acquire the bomb, but eventually gave up because the geopolitical circumstances changed and a deterrent of such magnitude was no longer perceived as necessary.

But things are changing again in Asia – in a dramatic way.

And the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. force posture seems to be diminishing just as the major Asian powers become more assertive.

In a context of rapidly shifting geopolitical relativities, Australia may soon have to reconsider its attitudes towards deterrence – including by nuclear weapons.

U.S. extended nuclear deterrence has never really been “tested” for Australia. During the Cold War successive Australian governments concluded that a major attack (conventional or nuclear) against Downunder was unlikely to occur outside the context of a general world war.

In other words, there were no plausible threats to Australia that would not also threaten the United States.

As such, the credibility of US nuclear deterrence only ever had to be measured against the PRC and USSR.

But the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific has already undergone dramatic change.

There are now several major military powers jockeying for their share of prestige, power, territory, and military influence in the region.

And Australia doesn’t quite know how to live in a region that isn’t dominated by the Western maritime power of the day.

Historically (1945 to the early 1970s), the “answer” to ensuring the defense of Australia in a geopolitically unstable region (the Korean War, British military withdrawal from Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War, Indonesian expansionism, the fear of Chinese invasion, and wariness over a re-militarized Japan) was to obtain a national nuclear deterrent (neither the British nor Americans could be relied on to defend Australia from such threats).

Australian Defense White Papers say that Australia “relies” on U.S. extended nuclear deterrence for its ultimate security, but that is only because Australia hasn’t actually needed a major deterrent in the last forty years.

Back in the 1950s up until the early 1970s when Australian officials did want to know the details of that security guarantee (targeting, contingencies), officials in the U.S. State and Defense Departments were not willing to share any level of information that might reassure Canberra of Washington’s commitment to defend its antipodean ally.

The answer was an Australian bomb.

If Canberra loses faith again, then Australia might indeed again pursue alternative defense policies.

For decades Australia has a good track record as a promoter of nuclear arms control and disarmament, true. But even after a Labor government ratified the NPT in 1970, a classified defense report dating from 1974 concluded that Australia could not rely solely on the U.S.

It stated:

[Where] a major power’s nuclear weapons had become the source of threat to Australia the option would be open to the U.S., in particular, to provide Australia with a nuclear capability of a kind which might be adequate for deterrence.

But we certainly cannot assume that it would… were nuclear powers evidently unwilling to become involved in the defence of Australia, a non-nuclear Australia would be subject to nuclear blackmail…We conclude that a necessary condition for any defense of Australia against a major power would be the possession by Australia of a certain minimum credibility of strategic nuclear capability.

In addition, successive governments have always recommended that Australia retain a certain amount of “lead time” to produce a nuclear capability should the need arise.

For example, a 1968 defense report stated that:

No present requirement is foreseen for Australia to develop a nuclear weapons capacity.

However, should a serious breakdown in the international order appear likely to develop, Australia might wish to reconsider the possibility of a requirement for a nuclear capacity.

It is important, therefore, that Australia maintain its freedom to reduce the lead time for the development of such a capacity from the present period of seven to ten years.

According to journalist Brian Toohey, even the Labor government (under Bob Hawke in the 1980s) accepted a defense planning assessment which argued that Australia should be in a position to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as any neighbor that looks like doing so.[1]

The document stated that:

Nuclear proliferation in Australia’s neighborhood will significantly alter the country’s security circumstances.

Successive governments have firmly committed Australia not to acquire nuclear explosives and this is confirmed in a legally binding document under the NPT. This commitment assumes the efficacy of the non-proliferation regime.

Developments relating to nuclear capability in countries within Australia’s neighborhood should be monitored in order to ensure that the lead time for Australia could be matched with developments in other countries should Government so decide… We should also maintain a scientific competence in [nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare] sufficient to advise policy.[2]

And since the 1970s up until today, although senior advisers to the Prime Minister have not recommended developing an enrichment capability, they have not recommended disregarding the possibility, either.

For several decades Australia, deterrence did not have to be “tailored” for specifically Australian circumstances and requirements.

When it did (the late 1940s to early 1970s), it wasn’t credible.

In this shifting security environment Australia will have to think very carefully about how to fend for itself­­ in a region where nuclear weapons are in play.

And in the next ten to twenty years the ultimate defense of Australia may well again require the possession of a strategic nuclear capability.

Christine Leah is a Stanton Post-doctoral fellow at MIT and the author of  “Australia and Nuclear Strategy”, which is her PhD dissertation and being prepared for publication.   

[1] Cited in Brian Martin, “Proliferation at Home”, Search, Vol. 15, No.5-6 (June-July 1984).

[2] Cited in Britan Toohey and Marianne Hanson, The Book of Leaks, pp.248-9

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